The most taboo of perversions, necrophilia is often incorporated into Decadent fiction as a theme testifying to the strength of a passion that defies corruption and endures everlastingly. Rather than involving ghoulishness or the desecration of graves, fin-de-siecle accounts of necrophilia tend to euphemize attachment to a corpse as an expression of pathological mourning. As Dany Nobus writes, "necrophilia is at stake in people's desire to preserve close contact with the deceased body of their beloved partner or sovereign" (186).
Typically in Decadent literature, the repulsiveness of cadavers is repressed, giving way to a form of reliquary fetishism, in which the dead beloved is preserved through veneration of her belongings. Precious fragments of the person are frequently hyper-cathected, becoming gateways through which the lost object re-enters the world. Like the fetishist who fixates on apparel or shoes as substitutes for the absent maternal phallus, the bereaved preserves a lock of hair, a piece of jewelry in which the presence of the beloved is believed to have remained, permitting loss to be denied and immortality affirmed. The amber tress of hair that Hugues Viane enshrines in Georges Rodenbach's Bruges-la-morte (1892), the embroidered pillow that Count d'Athol keeps as a memento of his wife in Villiers' "Vera" (1876) are objects that allow death to be simultaneously admitted and repressed. Debris left from a shipwreck whose horror they dispel, they enable mourners, like fetishists, to know and not know all at once. Fictional tributes to fidelity in madness, Rodenbach's novel and Villiers' tale downplay the reality of physical decay, as they triumph over the evanescence of corruptible things by celebrating the imperishability of beautiful literature.
In stark contrast to these elegiac celebrations of indestructible love, Rachilde's 1899 novel La Tour d'amour reintroduces the intense biological horror, the terrible sexual transgressivity of genuine necrophilia. Anticipating recent psychological studies of this rare disorder, Rachilde's text illustrates the nosographic distinction between necrosadism--in which victims are murdered before being used as sexual vessels by their aggressors--and attachment to Sleeping Beauty corpses, prized for their passivity and unresponsiveness. In her novel, Rachilde illustrates the interplay of these two sides of the perversion, showing how the perpetrator identifies with his victim, denying the object's alterity by internalizing it and making it an aspect of himself.
Indeed, the problematic relationship of the necrophile and his prey emerges as the central concern in Rachilde's text. Through a remarkable process of imaginary doubling, Rachilde uses her novel to stage a split in her authorial persona. Casting the helpless novice writer she was at the start of her career as the female corpse exploited by a pseudonymous male writer, she assumes the aggressive role in preying on her status as a victim. She thereby transforms herself into the necrophilic criminal whose violence is creatively reutilized as the shocking subjects of her novels. La Tour d'amour may thus be seen as marking a crucial stage in Rachilde's development as a writer, as gender issues are inextricably linked to an emphasis on authorship and creativity.
In her book-length study of the treatment of necrophilia in nineteenth-century France, Lisa Downing also accords a special place to her examination of Rachilde. As Rachilde's friend and colleague Jean Lorrain depicted the Decadence of turn-of-the-century France in a literature "fin de sexe," Rachilde, in Downing's view, goes beyond "inverting gender [...] stereotypes" (93). In her discussion of Monsieur Venus, La Tour d'amour, and Le Grand Saigneur, Downing argues that the theme of necrophilia is linked in Rachilde's texts to an enduring interest in expressing desire that transcends sexual identity and the periodicity of routine coupling. …